The title of Hulu’s Emmy® winning drama The Handmaid’s Tale would suggest that this is a story of a singular woman.
And while star and Emmy winner Elisabeth Moss’s June Osbourne has certainly excelled at dismantling the puritanical patriarchy from the inside throughout this series’ three seasons, fans – and June – know that she hasn’t done this alone.
For one, there’s Emmy winners Samira Wiley and Alexis Bledel’s respective portrayals of Moira Strand and Emily Malek. These two characters, who are both friends of June’s, have ignited their own crusades against injustice and survived their own horrific ordeals. By the end of Season 3, they’ve both made it safely out of Gilead – the country that religious fanatics known as the Sons of Jacob built up from remains of the United States and who now force women into sexual servitude – and are continuing to fight for others’ freedom as they work with refugee relief in Canada.
Wiley, who is currently a Supporting Actress Emmy nominee for this part, says she hasn’t made a point of seeking out activist roles even though she’s clearly great at attracting them (she won the Guest Actress Emmy award for Season 2 of Handmaid’s, has another Supporting Actress nomination for Season 1 of the show, and also is known for pivotal work as inmate Poussey Washington in Netflix’s prison dramedy, Orange is the New Black). However, she says, “I’m really happy because I feel like I’m learning so much from the characters that I’m playing. There are so many things that I was ignorant of before I played Poussey, as well with Moira. I count it as such a blessing to be able to have the characters that I play teach me things. I don’t think that everyone can say that, and I don’t expect that to be a given for the rest of my career. So to have that so early in my career, I really, really, really just feel lucky.”
For Bledel, whose Emily starts Season 3 by fighting freezing water and rough terrain in the middle of the night with a newborn baby in her arms all in the hopes of getting across the border alive, it was not hard to draw parallels to the refugees struggling to find relief at America’s southern borders. She worked with Handmaid’s stunt coordinator Shelley Cook and her team to make this anxiety-provoking scene work but says that “thinking about asylum seekers who embark on similarly dangerous journeys for their survival was the reason to film [it].”
It was also significant to Bledel that the episode showed how immediately accepted Emily and the infant are once they make it safely across the border – a detail that is much more fiction than reality for most of today’s asylum seekers in the States.
“It was emotional to depict a warm welcome after the terror and physical shock of crossing the freezing cold, rushing river, especially knowing that after going through all of that – after every hardship endured before escaping – many would then face even more hardship and even inhumane treatment rather than safety,” says Bledel, who took home the Guest Actress Emmy for her work in Season 1 of Handmaid’s.
This scene is juxtaposed with the third season’s finale, where Emily and Moira join other aid workers to unload an aircraft carrier of children and adults whom June has helped liberate from Gilead.
“There’s not that much pretending that I needed to do in that scene to be affected by all of those kids’ faces,” Wiley says. “It’s overwhelming to see all of them packed in that plane. I don’t think I’ve ever had a day on set like that.”
She says it was emotional because Moira knows that, in Gilead “all of these human lives are… just seen as numbers almost; just seen as, like, commodity.”
In the middle of the season, Emily and Moira have a bonding moment in a jail cell after they’re arrested for a protest that gets out of hand. Wiley says the scene was important to her, as an actress, because it gave her the challenge of a new scene partner to work off of since Moira and Emily hadn’t really had any screen time together before. But it also gave her a chance to let Moira relax a little bit.
“Having Emily in Toronto now, that’s something that Moira has [so she’s] able to not have to carry this burden all by herself,” Wiley says. “There’s this breath of fresh air to have this trauma shared.”
A favorite moment of Wiley’s from that scene is when the characters admit to each other that each have killed people while they were prisoners in Gilead and then, she says, “contemplating who we are as people. What has been done to us? Are we different people now? How do we swallow this?” before accepting that “we aren’t those people. That place is horrible, but we’re not horrible.”
Handmaid’s has also allowed both characters to show varying ways of coping with trauma. Moira has been safely out of Gilead for a couple of seasons now and has frequently been seen bottling up her anguish and pain until she has no choice and projects it onto others. In addition to the protest scene, Moira tells off Yvonne Strahovski’s nefarious Serena Joy Waterford, calling her a “gender traitor” for her hand in forcing other women into abusive situations – a reckoning that fans thought was a long time coming and one that makes Wiley cackle upon remembering it.
Emily’s escape is considerably newer and her wounds, both physical and emotional, are still very raw. It takes her quite a bit of time to call her wife, Sylvia, (Clea DuVall), who has long been safely living in Canada with their son. When she does? It’s waterworks both for their characters and for those watching at home.
“I thought about how ferociously Emily had been fighting to get out of Gilead,” Bledel says of filming that exchange. “To hear Sylvia’s voice on the other end of the phone, a huge sense of relief would wash over her in that moment, along with all the pain and all the things she would have wanted to tell her as they were happening.”
Bledel says she and Handmaid’s showrunner/creator Bruce Miller “did talk about how incredibly painful it would be, internally, for [Emily] to step back into society and family life.”
“Her trauma would stay with her and nobody would be able to relate to her experiences in Gilead,” Bledel continues. “The isolation and PTSD would be overwhelming, and the reunion process would be a series of tiny steps forward.”
Now that Moira and Emily have found each other in Canada and their story lines are separate from Moss’s June, does this mean that they each can find peace in future episodes of Handmaid’s? Neither actress knows for certain what will happen in Season 4, but Bledel teases that “there is another reunion upcoming for Emily as she continues to work through what she started in Season 3.”
Wiley says she’s “100-percent for” Moira – who confirmed in Season 2 that her fiancée Odette (Rebecca Rittenhouse) had perished at the hands of Gilead’s rulers – to explore a new relationship.
“To be able to see Moira as the activist – Moira as this strong leader that is able to be the backbone of a lot of people’s stories, not just her own – and pushing women to be the authors of their own stories?,” Wiley says. “That’s wonderful and it’s been great, and it’s been so empowering. But I’m so hungry to see, along with Moira the activist, to see Moira the person, the lover, the person who has a whole social life.”
Wiley has a little longer to ponder what else she would like to see happen to her character. Season 4 of The Handmaid’s Tale is set to air next year.